RESULTS IN BRIEF
California's County Veterans Service Officer program (CVSO program) plays a key role in helping military veterans, their dependents, and their survivors (veterans) receive the benefits and services for which these individuals qualify because of the veterans' service to their country. Working in partnership with state and federal departments of veterans affairs and with veterans organizations, counties we visited that have established their own CVSO programs (CVSOs) furnish vital assistance to veterans, and these local programs provide a wide range of services beyond initiating benefit claims. For fiscal year 1998-99, the California Department of Veterans Affairs (department) reported that the CVSO program assisted in obtaining for veterans more than $160 million in new or increased benefits. The department also reported that the program achieved significant savings for public assistance programs as well as increases in tax revenues for counties.
Nevertheless, our review disclosed that those who make decisions about the CVSO program should view with caution these favorable reports of benefits and savings. Neither the CVSOs nor the department has established sufficient procedures to ensure the accuracy of the information reported. For example, although we could not calculate the magnitude of the error, we determined that the dollar amount of benefits reported by some CVSOs is inflated because the CVSOs did not report increases to existing benefits correctly. Additionally, the department has based on outdated and irrelevant data the significant local tax revenues it cites as a benefit of the program when the department prepares its annual letters to counties that participate in the CVSO program.
Even if the department reported these figures correctly, such benefits and savings should not serve as the only measure of whether the CVSOs are serving veterans successfully. Instead, the CVSOs should do more to analyze and improve their own operations, and the department should do more to improve the program by evaluating performance statewide. No law or regulation precludes the department from establishing statewide goals, investigating why county performance data vary, and recommending practices for improvement; however, the department has not yet done so.
Additionally, although the department has established a generally reasonable process for allocating state and federal funds, the department does not ensure that allocations are based on accurate data. In fact, although state regulations require it to audit selected counties annually to validate information that serves as the basis for the allocations, the department has performed only one audit since 1996.
Our review also showed that the department does not maximize its federal reimbursement for cost-saving activities by CVSOs, which assist their counties in avoiding costs for the California Medical Assistance (Medi-Cal) program and public assistance programs by identifying veterans who are ineligible or only partially eligible for these programs because of the amount of veterans benefits they receive. However, CVSOs receive federal funding for their Medi-Cal cost-saving efforts only. The department should seek federal funds to reimburse CVSOs that help reduce costs for public assistance.
Further, CVSOs missed an opportunity to use an increase in state funding for fiscal year 1998-99 to expand or improve program services. The Legislature did not specify how counties were to spend the increase, and the counties we visited used the funds to reduce the amount of county funds spent on the program.
Finally, the department needs to improve its oversight of the training and certification process for CVSO personnel who assist veterans in the benefit claims process. The department has established a generally appropriate process for certifying that CVSO personnel meet federal Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) standards for accreditation. However, the department does not have a method for ensuring that all individuals who require accreditation earn that status, nor does it make certain that those individuals who are accredited receive ongoing training. Finally, the department needs to ensure that training manuals and certifying examinations are current and approved by the VA.
The Legislature should clarify whether it intends counties to use future budget increases in state funding to improve and expand CVSO program services or to reduce the counties' share of program costs.
The department should improve the reporting of benefits and savings associated with the CVSO program in several ways, such as ensuring that counties understand how to report benefit increases and developing appropriate estimates of local tax revenues.
Additionally, all CVSOs should establish appropriate controls over their reporting of benefits and other information to the department.
To better measure and improve the effectiveness of the program, the CVSOs and the department should work together to develop goals and productivity measures for CVSOs to determine achievement toward the goals. Additionally, to identify program areas that need improvement, the department should analyze differences among CVSOs using key information reported by CVSOs.
Further, the department should improve its administration of funding in various ways. For example, it should audit selected CVSOs annually, as required, to validate information it uses to allocate funds to each county, or the department should seek to change the requirement and establish an appropriate alternative process to ensure the accuracy of necessary information. Additionally, the department should seek federal reimbursement for CVSOs' efforts in reducing public assistance costs.
To ensure that CVSO personnel are qualified to provide assistance, the department should develop procedures to identify individuals who should be certified for accreditation and ensure they take action to become accredited. In addition, the department should establish procedures to make sure that accredited individuals receive ongoing training and implement additional procedures to ensure that training materials, including manuals and examinations, receive updates and appropriate approvals.
The department, Los Angeles County, San Diego County, and Yuba County agree with the recommendations directed to each of them.